A Review of John Haught's Book, "God and the New Atheism," Part 2

The following is a continuation of a review I started here about John F. Haught’s new book, God and the New Atheism. If you want to read something more about his views on religion Dr. Haught just recently wrote on the question, Is religion the root of all evil?, for the Secular Philosophy Blog, which, when it comes to his definition of religion I’ll get to that in a later post. [What I wrote in answer to that same question will be posted there next week].

In his “Introduction” Haught previously mentioned two "new" aspects to the new atheism: 1) “Faith in God is the cause of innumerable evils and should be rejected on moral grounds;” and 2) “Morality does not require belief in God, and people behave better without faith than with it.” (p. xiv) Whether these things are indeed "new" to atheists I very much doubt. Nonetheless in chapter one (pp. 1-14) he discusses the first "new" aspect of the new atheism.

Haught outlines the views of the new atheists with regard to faith. Their argument is based on “four evident truths.” The first one is that “many people in the world are living needlessly miserable lives.” The second is that “the cause of so much unnecessary distress is faith, particularly in the form of belief in God.” Faith for Harris, as but one example, is “belief without evidence” (The End of Faith, pp. 58-73, 85). Third, “the way to avoid unnecessary human suffering today is to abolish faith from the face of the earth.” And the fourth is that “the way to eliminate faith, and hence to get rid of suffering, is to follow the hallowed path of the scientific method.”

As a theologian and philosopher of science, Dr. Haught effectively dismantles what I consider to be a few na├»ve understandings of the new atheists regarding faith and the scientific method. It’s a common mistake that applied and theoretical scientists unaccustomed to understanding the philosophy of science make. Is faith a belief without evidence? No. Do scientists come to their conclusions based solely on the evidence? No.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the new atheists, since I truly appreciate the impact they have had in raising the level of awareness for skeptics, but Haught is correct here, if in fact that's what they think. Anyone who has seriously looked into the philosophy of science and read Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Ian Barbour, Frederick Suppe, Paul Feyerabend, and even Karl Popper knows that science is not completely objective, that facts are theory laden, and that certainty as a goal is impossible to achieve, which leaves room for faith. Popper, for instance, talked of science progressing by “conjectures and guesses.” Feyerabend even argued that there is no such thing as the scientific method! Scientists themselves are people with passions, prior commitments, and/or control beliefs. In fact, there are many beliefs we have for which we have no evidence, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued--such things as I’m not dreaming right now, that I've existed for longer than 24 hours, that I am not merely a brain in a mad scientist's vat which is being caused to remember the events of today in the year 2030, or that we're not all living in something depicted by the movie the Matrix.

Haught argues that “there is no way, without circular thinking, to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence rather than faith. The censuring of every instance of faith, in the narrow new atheist sense of the term (i.e. according to Haught as an "intellectual and propositional sense," rather than a "vulnerable heart"), would have to include the supposition of scientism also." Why? Because Haught argues, faith "is essential to ground the work of science itself.” (p. 11).

Here is where I think Haught is confused. Evidence stands in a dialectic tension with the faith of the scientist in that the scientist’s faith directs his conjectures and guesses, and in turn the evidence corrects these guesses by refuting ill informed ones. Faith and evidence stand in a dialectic tension with each other in this manner. So it would be completely non-scientific of Haught to say that the faith of a scientist should ever take precedence over the evidence itself. The faith of the scientist is one that should never be against the evidence, and THAT is surely what the new atheists are arguing for, irrespective of whether they have ever studied the philosophy of science or not! And the faith of a scientist (qua scientist) does not, and should not be, as Haught describes faith, "a commitment of one's whole being to God." (p. 5) Rather, it's a faith that believes a certain experiment will produce fruitful results prior to doing the experiment, or that spending a great deal of time trying to solve an equation will be worth the effort, or at a more fundamental level that his senses adequately reflect the world. The claim of the new atheists is that the evidence does not support the faith of a believer in God, and they are right. Haught disagrees, but how does he propose to show them they are wrong apart from the evidence?

Haught merely claims there is no way without circular reasoning to establish that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence. His argument is that if this is the case it leaves room for faith, since science cannot be proved based upon a scientific experiment. So what? What method does he propose to investigate our experience in this world other than science and the evidence? Mysticism? Intuition? What kind of methods are those? And how would someone go about establishing them as methods without reasoning in a circle? What is the exact content to these methods since those who adhere to them come away with different and mutually contradictory understandings of their experiences?

I have argued at length in my book on behalf of methodological naturalism, which was first suggested by the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Thales. He proposed a natural answer to the question of "what is the source of all things?" Thales claimed the source of all things was water. The method he used in coming to this conclusion eschewed references to the gods and goddesses of his day and merely looked for a natural answer to the question. This method is the one that has been the most fruitful in history, bar none. That method is all we have. So it’s reasonable to think as Barbara Forrest has argued, that since this method has worked so well that philosophical (or ontological) naturalism is a reasonable conclusion to come to, even if we cannot prove such a conclusion by a scientific experiment itself!

So while Haught is right about a few things, he’s dead wrong about other more important things.